I experimented with making a tiny book this weekend.
In his book Slaughter House 5, Kurt Vonnegut wrote the sentence “So it goes” 106 times. But before I get into that:
The other day I was watching David Letterman’s interview with Dave Chappelle. And they were talking about Dave’s response to the George Floyd murder and his special called 8:46. And Dave said “The commentary after [he died] was very heady and intellectual. And I was shocked that nobody ever talked about what it feels like to watch a man get murdered that way.”
The day before I watched that interview, I saw a video on Twitter of a Russian helicopter being hit by a Ukrainian missile, crashing to the ground, and exploding.
And the day before I saw that video, I finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5 for the first time. It’s a depiction of World War 2 and the bombing of Dresdon through the perspective of a soldier named Billy, who sporadically jumps around in time his entire life and is at one point abducted by aliens. The aliens aren’t the point, though. And neither is the time travel. The war is the point. And the death. So it goes.
Today, now, there is another war taking place in Europe. And thousands more deaths.
And I watched that video of the helicopter on Twitter, and I clicked in, and I used my finger to go back and forth, backwards and forwards, slower and slower – the missile hits, the helicopter goes down, the helicopter explodes, and the people die. I’d never seen people die like that before. So it goes.
Just like the scene of George Floyd’s murder. Just like the deaths in Word War 2 that Billy saw. We’d never watched someone die like that.
And there are two responses two watching these scenes: either you become desensitized to the horror, and you shrug your shoulders, and you say So it goes… Or you fight like hell to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
And I watched that video on Twitter… I scrolled back and forth for a few minutes, slower and slower… And then I put my phone down. And I sat. And then after a moment of silence and sadness sitting at work, I pulled my computer over again and I went back to work. And then I got lunch. And did some work. And I complained about this and that. And then I saw a friend, and ate some more food, and did some more things. And I forgot about the helicopter. Until the next day, when Dave Chapelle said “I was shocked that nobody ever talked about what it feels like to watch a man get murdered that way.”
And those soldiers came back to my mind. And the couple of seconds after they were hit before the struck the ground – to cry or pray or think about their mothers or their children or their country or their war. And then the thinking stopped. So it goes.
The cost of war isn’t just the people who die. But the way it tempers our reactions to death. Our desensitization to the horror is just another byproduct of the horror itself. So it goes, so it goes, so it goes.
Nathanial had a plan. He told me so as I rode in the back of his Ford Fusion, nearing the end of a long day of travel. I’d been on two delayed planes, a short tram, a packed bus to the pickup lot at LAX, and finally jumped in a Lyft back to my house. I’d been in transit for seven and a half hours by the time I threw my luggage into the back seat. I slouched in after it, happy to be in a row to myself without the rush of jet engines 15 feet outside the window.
“Ah, you’re headed to Venice?” Nathanial asked genially, tapping “GO” on his cell phone’s GPS map.
“Yes,” I said meekly, looking up from my lap at his phone, then the rear-view mirror where I could see Nathanial’s eyes navigating traffic. I hoped my soft “Yes” would communicate my excitement for a ride of silence. But a few seconds later, Nathanial asked where I was coming from. And the holidays. Then about work.
“You like your work?” he asked. “What do you do?”
“I do like it,” I said. “I work in digital media.”
“Oh,” he said, “Well this is the place to be! Are you arriving or getting back?”
“Getting back. I was at home for the holidays. I just got here in September.”
“Oh, it’s a temporary work assignment then?” He asked, mis-understanding. “Well LA is a beautiful place to spend the winter!” I didn’t have any interesting in correcting him, so I nodded in agreement.
“It’s true, it’s beautiful here.” I said, hoping to signal the end of the conversation. But before I knew it, he was telling me about his career as a Lyft driver.
“Yeah, I like it.” he said. “I mostly drive nights. eight to four, those are my work hours.” But he wasn’t planning to be a Lyft driver forever. He began to outline the small and lucrative driving company he was about to start.
“I am quite certain this next year will be the best of my life,” he said. “That’s the way it seems. I make 2,000 dollars a week driving for Lyft, but in the next month or two, I’ll be making 28,000 a week. I’ve got to buy a new elite SUV, then I’ll be hiring about eight drivers-“
As he described in great detail the cost and profit analysis of his fledgling company, I looked up to the mirror again, and studied his face for the first time. He was Black, in his late fifties, with lines creasing his eyes and cheeks behind a blue medical mask. He had a high voice, and talked very methodically, annunciating each syllable with intentionality. He was born and raised in LA, which was a surprise as he spoke with what seemed to be a slight southern accent.
“Yeah,” he said, drawing out the word with a sigh. “I’ve never made much money. Well, there was a time I was making 375,000 a month! Running a company selling TV and radio ads to attorneys. But ah, it didn’t last long cause my financial backer’s company went under and left me with nothing. Yeah, that was hard to get over, ha, I still get made about that sometimes.”
“Mm,” I said plainly.
“Yeah, I worked in sales for 35 years. I got pretty good at it. That’s how I’m going to run the new company. I won’t be driving, it’ll mostly be talking for me! Cause we’ll be catering specifically to business and high profile cliental in LA. People who, when they need a car, need a car! Mostly pre-booked rides. So a lot of talking, a lot of scheduling.”
As he drove and talked smoothly along, he pivoted to family, and told me about his wife and kids.
“I met her in Denver,” he said, now winding his way along the darkened side streets off the freeway. “I moved there when I turned 19, and married my wife at 22. We moved back to LA, because that’s where the business is. Not enough people for business in Denver. Or in Santa Barbara, oh I love Santa Barbara… I spent a few years there with my grandma growing up. And I loved it. I hate LA, I love Santa Barbara. But not enough people. So we moved to LA. And I thought that was going to be okay. That was the plan.”
He trailed off. “So what happened?” I asked.
“Well she left me.” He said. “She left. We divorced when we were 27 I think. Or 28? She went back to Denver. She’s got a lot of family there, so she went back. I thought she liked LA, that’s where we agreed to be. But no.”
“And what about your kids?” I asked.
“Well that’s the hardest part of all. She took them with her. And I stayed. Cause I don’t want anyone to try and change my mind.”
“Do you ever see them now?” I asked, not quite sure why.
“No.” He said. “No, I don’t. That’s the hardest part of all,” he said again. “I’ve got an estranged relationship with the kids now. But I’ve got a plan up my sleeve to deal with that, too.” He drew out estranged into two parts. Es was long, and stranged spat out like he didn’t want to think about it anymore. Estranged.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said sincerely.
“Well, I’ve got a plan up my sleeve,” he said. “I plan to be successful enough that I’ll start to buy some properties around here. Enough to give my kids some – maybe some apartment buildings, condos, things like that. You see, they’re doing real well for themselves, but I don’t think they’re making seven or eight figure incomes. So I’m going to try and lure them out here with that.”
He didn’t say anything more, and the streets lights passed rhythmically as we drove in silence for the first time. He made a left turn, then stopped at a light.
“I am quite certain this next year will be the best of my life,” he said again, more softly this time. Almost dreamily.
I watched his eyes in the rear view mirror, slightly widened, staring straight ahead at the road. He seemed the most confident man in the world as he drove me through the streets of Venice. As he pulled up to the house and put the car in park, he seemed so sure that everything would work out. As if it were already a fact, already fate.
He tapped “END” on the map on his phone.
“Thank you,” I said, swinging the door open, “Good luck with everything, I wish all the best for you.”
“Oh thank you!” Nathanial said, turning around. “Sorry to talk at you the whole time,” as if he’d just realized there was someone in the back seat with him. “I love to talk!” He said with a chuckle.
“I appreciated hearing it,” I said, stepping out and grabbing my bags. “Have a good night, and good luck with your plans.”
On Christmas day a week or two ago, an American painter named Wayne Thiebaud died at 101. I had never heard of Thiebaud, nor can I remember ever seeing any of his work. Which, now that I have, feels like a fatal flaw in my two years of higher art education.
I’d like to write a full piece on Wayne Thiebaud, but today I’m just going to point at some of the pieces that stopped me in my tracks the other day as I was poking around his past. Specifically his landscapes. Not the subject matter he became famous for, but certainly the subject matter that ensnared my imagination.
Look at how soft those clouds look!
These works feel like glorious caricatures of space. Caricatures of land. And that’s something I’ve never seen before. And I love it.
And now I’m going to let this all percolate and soak into my subconscious and see what comes out.
Fire is a toxic friend. It takes and takes, requiring ever more from you. Relying on you entirely for its very existence. But – in return for its life, for your sustenance – it keeps you warm. Brightening your life just enough to continue feeding its gnawing flame. Light and heat, its gracious reward for your constant sacrifice.
And the moment you stop giving, stop sustaining, the fire will leave you without another thought. A fickle, greedy friend.
The honeysuckle bush was busy. A crowd of insects buzzed and gossiped among the buds. A couple here and there shared a flower as the waitress flitted around, and a large group of hummingbirds at the back laughed boisterously. Down in the mound below the bush, the bar was full of the chatter and talk of the neighborhood folk enjoying their drinks as they waited for the game to begin. It was a lovely spring afternoon, and the sun had finally burst through the gray, Sunday gloom. Everyone was cheerier with the sun out and about, even in the dark bar where just a few narrow shafts of light cut through the open windows.
A groundhog in a red striped scarf crashed through the front door of the bar, and several mates who seemed to know him gave a warm shout. Behind the bar, a lovely chipmunk named Dakota scampered left and right, filling drinks, sliding glasses, and ignoring a pair of leering weasels who snickered every walked their way. And in the corner of the bar, a very wide robin sat slumped against the wall, dozing with a large empty pint glass gripped in her wing.
One small, grainy, boxy television hung above an end of the bar where the quarter-finals were soon set to broadcast. The volume in the bar grew steadily as people clad in red and white filtered in. Grins were clear on many of the faces waiting for the game, and drinks were passed around to all the newcomers. The door opened again, and a shaft of sunlight split the room in two momentarily as a couple of ferrets walked in, giving those inside, if there were to look, a glimpse of a tall squirrel outside with his back to the bar.
He seemed to be waiting for something, as he looked left and right down the road. He kept pulling out a scrap of paper from his pocket, unfolding it, glancing down, then repocketing it, as if just to reassure himself it were there. As he stood, he overheard the waitress amongst the flowers with a pair of fat bumblebees who had just buzzed their way to the honeysuckle bush. “I’m sorry, every flower is full!” The waitress said with a smile, her tiny wings nothing but a blur and a buzz.
He shifted his feet every once and a while, his tail twitching with impatience as the time passed and the rest of the crowd passed into the bar. Soon he heard the room quiet for a moment as the TV crackled to life, then cheers erupted through the open windows as the game began.
He waited like this for a while. The yells and shouts of outrage and jubilee came every once in a while from the bar, until the sun stooped low over the trees, heading quickly for the horizon.
The Honeysuckle had nearly emptied when the game ended and the crowd began to thin, grumbling and sidling their way through the door to trudge home in the dusk. If the team had won, the crowd would have stayed for an hour or two celebrating and gabbing, but no one much felt like staying to drink after such a miserable match. As they left, no one seemed to notice a scrap of paper on the road near where the squirrel had been standing. Stamped into the dirt, hard to see now in the darkening gloom, with the outline of a very large paw print, and the words “Honeysuckle Lounge, 3 PM, bring Lucile.” barely legible.
The last of the crowd made their way out as Dakota cleaned up. A while later, she finally switched off all the lights and locked the front door behind her as she walked off into the night, clutching a jacket tightly around her.
She didn’t notice the note in the dirt either. And the rain that came that night washed it away, along with the very large paw print, and the scent of any squirrel, good or bad.
I just finished reading a graphic novel from the library called Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. Quite an apt book to be published in 2021, written and illustrated by Kristen Radtke. It walks through the psychology and reality of loneliness in America. I’d recommend reading the entire thing, but on page 206, a passage struck me.
“‘Loneliness,” Kristen quotes, “is receiving steadily more attention.”
I read that line, and it felt like a knock over the head. It felt like such a clear and true juxtaposition. Written originally by Philosopher Lars Svendsen in 2015, it went on, “But that does not mean there is more of it out there.”
I then realized what Svendsen had been saying was not how I had at first read it. He was saying the idea of loneliness, the concept or diagnosis itself, had been receiving more attention by the scientific and general community.
But what I had taken it to mean in that first moment, was that loneliness comes, or is born out of, receiving steadily more attention. That more attention equals more loneliness. And, though I believe loneliness has indeed been getting more attention as a concept, I like my interpretation better.
Because isn’t it true? That all the stories we’re told of those fortunate enough to became famous, or incredibly wealthy, or both, find loneliness as an unwanted tagger-on to their success? That those people who we revere, adore, praise, indeed find that loneliness comes as a byproduct of receiving more attention.
This isn’t true for everyone, of course. But I wager a guess that a chart of fame and loneliness would look something like this.
But still… We strive for fame. So many of us. Me included. We ignore the red flags, the “BEWARE” sign posts, the fables of those who have flown too close to the sun. Because the allure is too great. Because we think fame will solve our problems.
And for many, one of the problems for which fame seems a perfect cure is loneliness.
But what if we’re wrong? And we likely are. What if, instead, loneliness is receiving steadily more attention.
Then, of course, it would make sense to avoid fame and attention at all costs in pursuit of real, human relationships. To sacrifice the solitary grandeur of fame, for the warm embrace of community.
Here are some other quotes from Seek You I noted:
“Loneliness is often exacerbated by a perception that one is lonely while everyone else is connected. It’s exaggerated by a sensation of being outside something that others are in on: A family, a friendship, a couple, a joke.” p. 12
“The bond of a secret is an intoxicating trust fall, and each time I’ve learned I’ve been kept outside one – that a friend had confided in someone else but chosen not to share with me – it’s felt like an assassination of our closeness.” p. 82
“A study published in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, conducted by the late loneliness expert and pioneer John T. Cacioppo, explored expansive social networks and found that loneliness “occurs in clusters,” extending up to three degrees of separation from one lonely hub.” p. 287
The first five times I watched Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, I walked away yearning to be just like Laurie. To have his confidence and cool and stature. And all his vests. But on the sixth watch, a year and a half after the fifth, I suddenly saw the movie differently. It wasn’t Laurie’s character I admired most – though his turns of phrase, fashion, attitude, and kindness all shout to me still. Instead, I found myself thinking about a short scene that I’d never paid much mind to before. The scene when Joe shows the Professor, Friedrich Bhaer, her published work. Nervously pacing around, biting her nail, giddy as she waits for his response to her livelihood and greatest passion.
“I think they’re not good,” the Professor says meekly after a time, looking up at Jo. “I know you have talent, which is why I’m being so blunt with you.”
Jo stares at her friend, dumbstruck for a moment, before her temper flares up and gets the better of the situation. The quiet conversation explodes into a volcano of mingled feelings as Jo recoils at the Professors words. As she yells and criticizes, though, the Professor never loses his cool. Never judges her temper, never raises his voice. Never lashes out.
First, he is blunt with his candor. Then he is gracious with her temper. Finally, he is forgiving of her rage. This is the type of man I’d like to be. Critical and gracious. Honest and kind. And while I strive to hold many of Laurie’s finer traits in hand, it the heart of the Professor I want to follow after.
“We, for every kind of reason, good and bad, are distracting ourselves into spiritual oblivion. It is not that we have anything against God, depth, and spirit. We would like these! It is just that we are habitually too preoccupied to have any of these show up on our radar screens. We are more busy than bad. More distracted than non spiritual, and more interested in a movie theater, the sports stadium and the shopping mall, and the fantasy life they produce in us, than we are in Church.”
“What you give your attention to is the person you become. Put another way, the mind is the portal to the soul, and what you fill your mind with will shape the trajectory of your character. In the end, your life is no more than the sum of what you gave your attention to.”
“Hurry is not just a disordered schedule, hurry is a disordered heart.”
“We’re mortal, not immortal. Finite, not infinite. Image and dust. Potential and limitations. One of the key tasks in our apprenticeship to Jesus is living into both our potential and our limitations. There’s a lot of talk right now about reaching your full potential, and I’m all for it. Step out, risk it all, have faith, chase the dream God put in your heart, become the technicolored version of who you were made to be. But again, that’s only half the story. What you hear very little of, inside or outside the Church, is accepting your limitations.”
“Limitations aren’t all bad. They’re where we find God’s will for our lives.”
“If you want to experience the life of Jesus, you have to adopt the lifestyle of Jesus.”
“Jesus was rarely in a hurry. Can you imagine a stressed out Jesus?”
“This rootedness in the moment and connectedness to God, other people, and himself, weren’t the byproducts of a laid-back personality or pre-WiFi world, they were the outgrowths of a way of life. A whole new way to be human that Jesus put on display in story after story. After all, this is the man who waited three decades to preach his first sermon, and after one day on the job as Messiah, he went off into the wilderness for 40 days to pray. Nothing could hurry this man.”
“[The gospels] are biographies. I would argue that these stories about the details of Jesus’ life have just as much to teach us about life in the Kingdom as his teachings or miracles or the more major stories of his death and resurrection.”
“Solitude is pretty straightforward. It’s when you are alone, with God, and with your own soul. For clarification, by solitude I don’t mean isolation. The two are worlds apart. Solitude is engagement, isolation is escape. Solitude is safety, isolation is danger. Solitude is how you open yourself up to God, isolation is painting a target on your back for the tempter. Solitude is when you set aside time to feed and water and nourish your soul. To let it grow into health and maturity. Isolation is what you crave when you neglect the former. And solitude, as somber as it sounds, is anything but loneliness. In his masterpiece, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster wrote, ‘Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment.'”
“Sabbath is coming for you. Whether as delight, or as discipline. Maybe that’s why God eventually has to command the Sabbath. Does that strike you as odd? It’s like commanding ice cream or live music or a day at the beach. You would think we would all be chomping at the bit to practice the Sabbath. But apparently, there’s something about the human condition that makes us want to hurry our way through life as fast as we possibly can. To rebel against the limitations of time itself. Due to our immaturity, disfunction, and addiction, God has to command his people to do something deeply life giving. Rest.”
“The important thing is to set aside a day for nothing but rest and worship. Now, often people hear ‘worship’ and think that means singing Bethel songs all day while reading the Bible and practicing intercessory pray. That’s all great stuff, but I mean ‘worship’ in the wide, holistic sense of the word. Expand your list of the spiritual disciplines to include eating a burrito on the patio, or drinking a bottle of wine with your friends over a long, lazy dinner… Anything to index your heart to grateful recognition of God’s reality and goodness.”
“‘Persons who meditate become people of substance, who have thought things out and have deep convictions. Who can explain difficult concepts in simple language. And have good reasons behind everything they do.”
“Our days of pain are the building blocks of our character. Our crucible of Christ-likeness. I rarely welcome them, I’m not that far down the path, not yet, but I accept them. Because my rabbi teaches that happiness isn’t the result of circumstances, but of character and communion. So whether it’s a good day, or a not-so-good day, either way, I don’t want to miss the moment. If it’s true that goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life, how many days do I miss that goodness in my helter-skelter race to cram it all in before sunset?”
“‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.'”
Here are the passages I marked while reading The Sabbath, which I finally finished today at the library.
“To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.” Pg. 1
“There is happiness in the love of labor, there is misery in the love of gain. Many hearts and pitchers are broken at the fountain of profit.” Pg. 1
“The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place – a holy mountain or a holy spring – whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.” Pg. 9
“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.” Pg. 10
“…the Sabbath is not an occasion for diversion or frivolity; not a day to shoot fireworks or to turn somersaults, but an opportunity to mend out tattered lives; to collect rather than to dissipate time. Labor without dignity is the cause of misery; rest without spirit the source of depravity.” Pg. 18
“[The Sabbath] is a day of the soul as well as of the body; comfort and pleasure are integral parts of the Sabbath observance. Man in his entirety, all his faculties must share its blessing.” Pg. 19
“The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere… The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than of the Sabbath being within us.” Pg. 21
“‘What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose.”‘ Pg. 23
“For the Sabbath is a day of harmony and peace, peace between man and man, peace within man, and peace with all things. On the seventh day man has no right to tamper with God’s world, to change the state of physical things.” Pg. 31.
“‘Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work (Exodus 20:8).’ Is it possible for a human being to do all his work in six days? Does not our work always remain incomplete? What the verse means to convey is: Rest on the Sabbath as if all your work were done. Another interpretation: Rest even from the thought of labor.”
A pious man once took a stroll in his vineyard on the Sabbath. He saw a breach in the fence, and then determined to mend it when the Sabbath would be over. At the expiration of the Sabbath he decided: since the thought of repairing the fence occurred to me on the Sabbath I shall never repair it.” Pg. 32
“The [Sabbath] was a living presence, and when it arrived they felt as if a guest had come to see them. And, surely, a guest who comes to pay a call in friendship or respect must be given welcome.” Pg. 53
“What is the Sabbath? Spirit in the form of time.” Pg. 75
“We usually think that the earth is our mother, that time is money and profit our mate. The seventh day is a reminder that God is our father, that time is life and the spirit our mate.” Pg. 76
“‘The Sabbath is all holiness.’ Nothing is essentially required save a soul to receive more soul. For the Sabbath ‘maintains all souls.”‘ Pg. 82
“All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the thought and appreciation of what this day may bring to us should be ever present in our minds.” Pg. 89
“Everyone will admit that the Grand Canyon is more awe-inspiring than a trench. Everyone knows the difference between a worm and an eagle. But how many of us have a similar sense of discretion for the diversity of time?” Pg. 96
“Things perish within time; time itself does not change. We should not speak of the flow or passage of time but of the flow or passage of space through time. It is not time that dies; it is the human body which dies in time.” Pg. 97
“Every one of us occupies a portion of space. He takes it up exclusively. The portion of space which my body occupies is taken up by myself in exclusion of anyone else. Yet, no one possesses time. There is no moment which I possess exclusively. This very moment belongs to all living men as it belongs to me. We share time, we own space. Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings. We pass through time, we occupy space. We easily succumb to the illusion that the world of space is for our sake, for man’s sake. In regard to time, we are immune to such an illusion.” Pg. 99